- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

For all the overwhelming sense of joy that Joe Gibbs generated with his return to Washington, there was one player on the Redskins’ roster who wasn’t so ecstatic to learn the name of his new coach.

Not that Rock Cartwright had anything personal against Gibbs. He just didn’t know if the Hall of Fame coach would have any use for a 5-foot-7, 232-pound fullback.

Indeed, Gibbs has no use for a pure fullback in an offense that replaces the position with the tight-end-like H-back. So Cartwright did the only thing he could to ensure a place on Gibbs’ roster: He lost 20 pounds in seven days, transformed himself into a tailback and set out to prove to the new coaching staff he can make it in the NFL.

“I knew with Coach Gibbs that my only shot at playing was as a running back,” Cartwright said. “They don’t need a fullback. So I kind of took it upon myself to lose the weight, come in to camp and show them I belong here.”

Yeah, but 20 pounds in seven days? Not even Dr. Atkins proclaimed such staggering results.

“Well, I cheated on my diet a little,” Cartwright said with a laugh. “It probably took about 10 days.”

Cartwright’s offseason metamorphosis has amazed everyone who’s seen the now svelte 212-pounder in action. The Redskins’ coaching staff certainly has taken notice: With Ladell Betts out the first two weeks of training camp with a hamstring injury, Cartwright served as the No.2 tailback behind Clinton Portis and on Saturday led the team with eight carries for 47 yards.

Cartwright’s ultimate status with the club remains uncertain — he could conceivably fall anywhere from second-string tailback to unemployed. He’s one of five backup rushers, along with Betts, Chad Morton, Sultan McCullough and John Simon, competing for three or four spots on the opening day roster.

But the way Gibbs speaks about him, it seems safe to say Cartwright will play a significant role this season in one capacity or another, despite early suggestions he would have no place on this team.

“I told him, ‘Don’t pay attention to what’s written. Pay attention to what you’re doing out here,’” Gibbs said yesterday. “Because Rock Cartwright has been there on every down. He plays special teams, and he’s been carrying the ball for us. He’s been real impressive to me. … That’s one of those guys it looks like you’re going to be able to count on.”

Gibbs and his fellow coaches didn’t know what to make of Cartwright when they first arrived in town. It didn’t take long, though, for running backs coach Earnest Byner to fall in love with this mighty mite.

“The first guy that came to see me in the offseason was Rock,” Byner said. “He came in and said, ‘Coach, I just want an opportunity to compete. That’s all I’m looking for. I want to be with this team.’ That’s the first thing that really stood out to me about Rock: He has the desire.”

Cartwright has had to rely on desire every step in his football-playing life. Regularly dismissed because of his short, stocky physique, the third-year pro continually has had to prove himself.

And he’s succeeded every time.

A highly touted rusher in high school, Cartwright was made a fullback at Kansas State because coaches felt he didn’t have the size or speed to carry the ball. The Redskins drafted him in the seventh round in 2002, made him their backup fullback, then were forced to start him at tailback three times at the end of last season when injuries decimated the position.

Cartwright responded in his usual no-nonsense manner: He ran for a career-high 81 yards against Seattle, then bested that mark with 94 yards against Dallas. His four rushing touchdowns led the team, and his 11-for-14 conversion rate on third-and-1 was among the best in the league.

“I knew that [short-yardage situations] would probably be the only way I’d get to touch the ball, before all those other guys got hurt,” he said. “So I took a lot of pride in trying to get the first down on the first time, not the second time. And to try to get into the end zone the first time, not the second time.”

Cartwright also takes pride in his ability to overcome adversity. He has done so often, most recently on Memorial Day, when his mother unexpectedly died.

Cartwright, who missed the Redskins’ final spring minicamp to attend the funeral, is reluctant to speak about the incident. Thoughts of his mother, though, clearly are with him as he puts on his uniform each day.

“I have a lot of motivation for different reasons right now,” he said.

Byner has seen first-hand how Cartwright has been able to face adversities in his life and transform them into renewed vigor on the football field.

“He has the temperament of a guy who’s always trying to prove something,” Byner said. “I think that’s the thing that’s really brought him to this level and will continue to drive him the rest of his life, to push him past a lot of things that other people look at as shortcomings.”

Which is how a 5-foot-7 fullback who two years ago was the 257th player drafted can earn himself a place on an NFL roster, plus in the hearts of coaches, teammates and fans.

“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” Cartwright said of his unusual football path. “My fire’s still burning to play football, and it’s going to continue to burn as long as I get the opportunity.”

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